Take off (some time)

Last week, the engine on NASA’s brand new Ares 1-X flamed into life and the oddly thin white tube slowly raised itself from the launchpad. It accelerated impressively quickly and arced into the blue Florida sky. Within about two minutes it was travelling at almost five times the speed of sound.

Aiming high (picture courtesy of NASA).

Right on cue, explosive bolts fired to initiate stage separation. But that’s when things began to go wrong. The booster and payload stages unexpectedly started a slow tumble as they lost speed and fell to earth. Then, on its descent, only one of the three parachutes deployed properly and the booster was badly dented as it smacked into the Atlantic ocean.

The bittersweet outcome of this test firing reminded me of Oscar Wilde’s famous saying: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars”.

The scientists and engineers at NASA may draw some consolation from this as they examine their precious but damaged booster and wait, breath bated, for the US government to decide just how committed it is to the Ares program.

But such intimate mixtures of success and failure, it struck me, are part and parcel of a life in science. Our sense of achievement does not endure very long.

Or maybe it’s just me? I recently basked momentarily in the glow of the news that our latest paper had been accepted for publication. It was a great result — a new structure of a viral protease-peptide complex — and one that my group has worked hard to achieve and is justly proud of. But before I had even received the proofs I could already see the dark lineaments of looming deadlines and hear them growling for my attention. They are relentless. I have lectures to prepare, references to compose, accounts to manage, manuscripts to review, grant applications to get sorted, more papers to write. The buzz of our success was quickly dulled, in my mind at least. All I could think of this week were the jobs not done, the targets not met, and the time that I don’t have available to do the things that I usually love about this job. I felt dented, out of shape.

And so, blinded by the minutiae of everyday preoccupations as I was rushing from lecture theatre to undergraduate office last Wednesday, I was arrested briefly by the sight of a poster announcing that 4th November was National Stress Awareness Day.

“Don’t miss out!” trumpeted the cheery but bizarre tagline across the bottom of the notice.

Don’t worry friend, I told myself grimly, I’m getting my share.

But then I thought, why am I subjecting myself to this? Being grumpy about my job is just an attitude of mind. Isn’t it?

This line of thought may have been triggered by a video of a TED talk that I saw recently given by the designer Stefan Sagmeister. Sagmeister seems to have developed a much healthier attitude to work than the one that assaulted me this past week. His presentation is called “The Power of Time Off” and I thought it fascinating. The first 4 mins or so are the highlight and deliver the central message, which is that time away from work can be enormously re-energising. (But if you ‘re the least bit interested in design the rest of the video is also worth a look.)

Sagemeiter on stage.

Now all I have to do is figure out a way to reach escape velocity.

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11 Responses to Take off (some time)

  1. Anna Vilborg says:

    I like his idea of taking some retirement time off early during your career. There was actually a PI at our department who took half a year off to go sailing with her husband, something they’d planned a long time. I think she felt it to be more difficult than rewarding for her work though (although certainly rewarding in other ways).

  2. Frank Norman says:

    Interesting. I went to a Cafe Scientifique this week given by Jo WOlff of UCL’s Crucible Centre. The Crucible looks at the evolution of health & wellbeing, It was interesting (looked at health inequalities and the reasons for them) and frustrating (seemed to be just ideas rather than results, and rather full of holes).
    Anyway, Jo suggested that manual workers (start work at 16; retire at 65 after nearly 50 years of hard labour) get a raw deal from the pensions system, whereas e.g. academics (start work about 25 after several years of education; retire at 60 maybe after a life of easy living) get a rather better deal. He suggested that number of years in the workforce should be the basis of pension entitlement rather than number of years on the planet. He presented this as a natural justice issue.
    I caricature his arguments slightly, but not a lot. There is some sense in what he says, about class-linked health inequalities, but I couldn’t agree with his reasoning.
    David Colqhoun gave him some robust comments- “it’s all correlation, not causation!”.
    Anyway, I’m not sure Jo would buy the idea that we need retirement time even earlier in our careers.

  3. Stephen Curry says:

    @Anna – I thought Sagmeister’s notion of advancing retirement was genius. But he is fortunate, I guess, in being sufficiently secure financially and profesionally to be able to put it into practice. An inspiration to the rest of us though.
    @Frank – for sure there are gross inequalities in this area but I’m just giving my perspective here. Thanks for the link to the Crucible Centre – I hadn’t known of its existence before.
    In any case, ‘time off’ doesn’t necessarily have to mean a holiday. A change can be as good as a rest which I suppose is the purpose of an sabbatical, that might allow you to explore a new area of science.

  4. Alyssa Gilbert says:

    Love this, and found his design ideas fascinating (I want that coffee table, and the way he did the logos for the music hall was very interesting). I’m starting to put together what my life philosophy might be, and I think I might incorporate this into it. Thanks for sharing!

  5. Rory Macneil says:

    I can’t resist mentioning that one of the main benefits people tell us about using eCAT is that it reduces stress. Particularly in that it makes not only your personal data but also data from everyone in the lab easily accessible when you need to prepare a lecture, sort a grant application, write a paper, or compose a reference. Oops, those were exactly the things you mentioned!

  6. Stephen Curry says:

    Gosh Alyssa, that sounds like a serious project. My life philosophy is to avoid adopting a life philosophy.
    Damn – failed.
    @Rory – Nice, but show us the evidence. After all, many people also say that homeopathy ‘works’ for them but a proper experimental test has yet to demonstrate efficacy beyond the placebo… 😉
    Mind you, as far as stress-management goes, I guess the placebo is a good place to start!

  7. Rory Macneil says:

    Do you mean evidence of stress reduction? Or evidence of other things, e.g. better communication between lab members, fewer instances of data getting lost, and shorter time to produce papers and prepare grant applications because it is easier to locate data? If the former I would have thought that stress — at least of the kind you are talking about! — is largely subjective. Surely if you feel better able to keep all the balls in the air that is sufficient evidence in itself of reduced stress. If you mean evidence of other things like the ones I mentioned, let me know and I will try to provide some evidence of them.

  8. Stephen Curry says:

    My tongue was in my cheek Rory 😉 – I’m sure eCAT is a great tool. I’m just not quite sure I’m ready to ditch lab-books, but perhaps I should have a closer look…

  9. Rory Macneil says:

    Sorry, Stephen, I must have left my sense of humour behind yesterday! But it does exist, I promise, and amazingly in thinking about the stress issue I forgot to mention the visual we use in one of our presentations. It’s of a scientist lying on a beach — he’s able to do that because of all the time he has saved by using eCAT! Kind of like a lawyer thinking of the winning punchline he should have used the day after the trial. Oh well.
    Anyway, we are just putting together a video about how to get started with eCAT. It should be entertaining and might even provide a bit of useful ‘evidence’ (!). When the video is done are you up for taking a look? Then you can decide whether the evidence has been convincing enough to check eCAT out.

  10. Stephen Curry says:

    I would be very happy to take a look.
    However, just because scientists can sometimes find the time to go to the beach, doesn’t mean that they will necessarily be able to relax…! 😉

  11. Rory Macneil says:

    Great, its a deal. But you have to promise to watch the video in the office!

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